I’ve got to be honest here – I’m not sure I like American fiction. I don’t really know what it is about it, but it doesn’t hit me the same way fiction from other countries does. That really isn’t a reflection on all American literature, and I’m probably generalising vastly, so take that with a pinch of salt. It might be that I can’t relate to the language and slang the same way I can to British fiction, or it might be that I’m reading the wrong kind – either way, I was less impressed than I thought I would be with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and that could be a reason why.
I’ve been long familiar with the storyline of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, partly because of the multi-Oscar-winning film produced by a young Michael Douglas, and partly because it’s just one of those stories that’s talked about for its ending and its entire plot, not just the premise. If you don’t know the outcome and would like to avoid spoilers, I recommend you avoid this blog post as I’m not quite sure how to discuss the book without discussing the ending. In fact, it didn’t feel like much happened in it UNTIL the ending, and even that felt a bit rushed. So if you know the ending or don’t mind finding it out, let’s take a look at the book itself.
The story is told through the eyes of a seemingly mute and deaf half-‘Indian’ (Native American) Chief who is a patient in a mental institution held under the oppressive regime of a matriarchal nurse. He’s not actually deaf, or he wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, but everyone believes he is and so he spends his days being ignored and never saying a word. One day, a swaggering, fun-loving man is admitted, feigning madness to gain entry and cause trouble, aiming to rouse the patients into a rebellion. Throughout the relatively short novel, McMurphy (the rebel patient) witnesses what life is like under the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched and aspires to overthrow her. McMurphy is our protagonist, but we all know how it ends – McMurphy’s spirit is crushed and he eventually receives a lobotomy, a neurosurgical procedure that seems to virtually wipe the personality from the person receiving it.
I know what I expected here: steady mental decline, the nurse coming down with an iron fist, McMurphy getting gradually more powerless as the psychology of dictatorship comes into play. If that’s what was in the novel, I feel like I missed it. Throughout the vast majority of the story, McMurphy only endures very minor setbacks, and at times when you think his personality is beginning to change, he comes through stronger than ever. In fact, only in the last fifty pages or so does it feel like there is any story at all, and McMurphy’s punishment comes around so quickly and seems so out of character that it’s difficult to follow – not exactly the unstable rebellion I was expecting. Nurse Ratched did not have the threatening presence I thought she would have, although her damaging effect on the other patients was clear.
The novel is a classic, so I can’t help but doubt my own perception as a reader by disliking it or not feeling the emotions that I expected to feel. On Goodreads (and we know how much I love Goodreads!) it has an average star rating of 4.16, which is exceptionally good compared to many other average ratings. If I cast my eye over the reviews, everyone seems to have taken from it what I so desperately wanted to – the anguish upon reading about an individual’s struggle against the system. McMurphy is hailed as one of the best characters in literature (he certainly is a character and a half, so I’ll accept that). But finishing it feels a bit like when you read a novel at school and would scratch your head and say ‘huh?’ while your teacher waxed lyrical about how it was one of the most important novels of its era. You know the feeling. As an English Literature grad and a lover of books I refuse to accept that it’s just me being dumb, and missing the subtleties at work.
I was also pretty irked by the constant grammatical errors, which apparently made it through the editing process (and, I presume, were considered so integral to the original novel that they were never corrected in later editions). Kesey commonly uses ‘could of’ / ‘should of’ / ‘would of’ etc. in his narration (a lot of people defend grammar errors in fiction when they are being said by characters, which is understandable, but I don’t think ‘could of’ is a worthy exception, given that ‘could of’ and ‘could’ve’ sound virtually the same – which is why the error exists in the first place, I expect). I’ve never seen grammatical errors in a book before, and it made me very uncomfortable to find so many in a Penguin edition of a classic piece of literature.
This all sounds very negative, but I do consider it a good book, just not a great one. I liked the writing style very much, with Chief Bromden’s reflections on his past with his Native American father beautifully written, but I suppose I needed to see it on screen to truly appreciate it. With that in mind, let’s look now at the aforementioned Oscar-winning movie.
The film actually redeemed the book slightly, in my eyes. It was a pretty good film all round, and a very faithful adaptation to boot (although Kesey notoriously hated it). Jack Nicholson was perfect in the role of McMurphy and in many ways carried the film on his shoulders, but I think that all of the patients were well-cast and shone in their roles, making each character unique and convincing while trapped in the asylum. The only character I felt was badly-cast was Nurse Ratched – Louise Fletcher did bring an icy presence to the role, but it didn’t feel right for the character, somehow. Her soft voice and slight frame made the ‘Big Nurse’ seem more like an exasperated worker who was sympathetic to her patients’ needs, not the tyrannical dictator who knew how to psychologically play each man from the novel. Without the narration from Chief Bromden, it was difficult to see exactly how she was affecting them. I noticed that the film did the editing that the book needed – the dramatic events taking place at the end of the novel happened much, much sooner in the film and were spaced out well. Without the need for everything to be in Bromden’s eyes, we learnt much more about McMurphy’s state of mind and, crucially, the psychological torture he underwent (such as the electro-shock therapy).
So, to finish with: my Goodreads review. Sorry, Ken, but I gave this one three stars – a respectable rating, but nothing incredible. I think my expectations were just too high on this one.
[Coming next: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton]